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King George VI Dead at 56

King George VI with Prince Charles, Regent of Belgium, at the Headquarters of the Canadian Army in Belgium, c October 1944. Image from Wikimedia Commons

On February 6, 1952, King George VI died peacefully in his sleep at Sandringham. He was 56 years old. His death was caused by coronary thrombosis. His older brother, the former King Edward VIII, abdicated on December 11, 1936 to "marry the woman I love," the two-time American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The throne fell on the lap of the reluctant king who steered Britain through World War II and the country’s impending decline as a colonial power.

The exact time of the king’s death was not announced, although a bulletin was issued shortly before 11 in the morning at Buckingham Palace.  The official news of the King's death shocked the nation who had been deeply concerned about his health. Some courts abruptly adjourned their hearings.

News of His Majesty’s death was immediately telephoned from Sandringham to Buckingham Palace, whose officials then told the prime minister and the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Pyfe. Queen Mary was at Marlborough House when she was informed of her son’s passing.

After news of the king’s death, Prime Minister Winston Churchill at once summoned the cabinet into session. Both Mr.Churchill and the leaders of other two major parties were expected to speak at a brief House of Commons session.

King George VI was seen strolling the grounds of Sandringham House the day before death came swiftly unto him.  Prince Charles, now heir to the throne, and his sister, Princess Anne, were both staying with their grandparents at Sandringham. Princess Margaet was also there.

In New York, members of the Duke of Windsor's household declined to awaken him immediately to inform him of the death of his brother. Reporters' efforts to visit the Duke's flat or to reach it by telephone were in vain. The hotel reported that the telephone calls were not answered and there was no indication whether the Duke and Duchess had received news of the King's death.

Later, a statement issued by his secretary said: "The Duke I and Duchess of Windsor are profoundly shocked by the news of the King's death. His Royal Highness has spoken to the British Ambassador in Washington and is calling Buckingham Palace. A statement of his plans will be issued as soon as they are made."

The stress of the war prove too much for the king’s health, which was already made fragile by his heavy smoking. He developed lung cancer among other ailments, including arteriosclerosis and Buerger's disease.

The King and Queen were expected to embark on a tour Australia and New Zealand but it had to be cancelled after he suffered arterial blockage in his right leg, which threatened the loss of the leg and was treated with a right lumbar sympathectomy in March 1949.  With the king’s health in decline, Princess Elizabeth took on most her father’s responsibilities.

His health slightly improved, well-enough to let him open the Festival of Britain in May 1951. However, a malignant tumor was discovered on his left lung, necessitating its removal on September 1951. In October 1951, Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh made a month-long tour of Canada, a trip that was delayed for a week due to the King's illness.

By November, he was too ill to personally open the Parliament and the King's speech was read for him by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Simonds.  His Christmas broadcast of 1951 was recorded in sections, and then edited together.

On January 31, 1952, the King went to London Airport to send off Princess Elizabeth, despite his physicians’ protestations.  Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh would pursue the long-over trip to Australia via Kenya. The princess would never see her father again. At 7.30 in the morning of February 6, King George VI was found dead in his bed at Sandringham House. The King’s death coincided the sunset of what was once an indomitable empire.


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